NBRP’s Baseball’s Bridge Across the Pacific exhibit at the MLB All Star Game in Seattle in July 2023. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig with members of the Fresno Athletic Club during a barnstorming tour in 1927. Left to right: Johnny Nakagawa, Lou Gehrig, Kenichi Zenimura, Babe Ruth, Fred Yoshikawa and Harvey Iwata • Photo by Emily Hawks

Baseball has a rich history in the Japanese American community tracing back to the 19th century, but its origins and evolution aren’t as widely known or celebrated as baseball’s other historical threads. The Nisei Baseball Research Project (NBRP) is a nonprofit organization founded by Kerry Yo Nakagawa to preserve this largely marginalized history.

The organization began as an exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum in 1996, later evolving into a traveling show that has since been displayed across the world, including at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.

NBRP also produced a documentary film entitled Diamonds in the Rough: The Legacy of Japanese American Baseball, narrated by Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita, as well as sports drama American Pastime, which takes place in Japanese incarceration camp during World War II.

Kerry Yo Nakagawa was kind enough to speak with the IE to discuss the project and his own experiences with our national pastime.

Emily Hawks: One of the reasons I love baseball is the connective thread it holds across multiple generations. The connection with baseball in your own family spans across five generations. Can you about your family’s history and connection with the game?

Kerry Yo Nakagawa: I feel very blessed to have five generations of baseball in my family. It’s in our DNA… it just seems like our dynamic started with baseball. My grandfather Hisataro Nakagawa went from Hiroshima, Japan, to the Big Island of Hawaii, and he worked at the Puna Sugar Cane Plantation.

Every Sunday they got a few hours off to play other plantation teams. My Uncle Johnny was like the pre-war Shohei Ohtani. They called him the “Nisei Babe Ruth” because he was a left-handed pitcher, a center fielder, and a home run hitter.

My dad threw a no-hitter for his Carruthers High School baseball team in 1924. I played shortstop in the small town I grew up in called Fowler, California, and our son Kale was [later] a catcher. Now our grandson, “Will the Thrill,” as we call him, is a left handed Little Leaguer. So, yes, we feel very blessed that baseball has been part of the generational aspect of our family.

EH: You are the founder of the Nisei Baseball Research Project, and curator of the Diamonds in the Rough: Japanese Americans in Baseball exhibition. Can you talk about the origins of these projects?

KYN: Back in 1994, our son Kale and his teammate Brandon Zenimura were 10 years old, playing baseball in a small farm town called Kingsburg, California. And I remember seeing the back of their jerseys — Nakagawa and Zenimura — and it gave me this kind of epiphany, or as I call it a synergy or synchronicity.

Here were these Yonsei, fourth generation Japanese American kids, that probably have no idea how much of an impact their great grandfather and great uncles had on baseball, not only for America but for our families.

I thought of a picture I grew up with of my Uncle Johnny next to Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. When I asked him about it, he, being very modest, just said, “We were on Lou Gehrig’s team, and we beat Babe Ruth’s team 13-3 at Fresno Fireman’s Park.” I reflected back and thought, what a shame it would be if others weren’t aware of this amazing history. This would all be lost.

I tried to think of a way to get this information and this legacy out into the universe. At that time, the Fresno Art Museum was conducting an exhibition on Japanese culture in the Central Valley of California. This was the perfect opportunity.

With the Fresno Art Museum’s blessing, we got a space about the size of a Little League diamond and gathered artifacts. The first day, 1,000 people came to our opening. Then, Rosalyn Tonai of the National Japanese American Historical Society, asked if we would be willing to co-produce the exhibit and take it around the country.

The top of the mountain was when we got to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1998 with our exhibit Diamonds in the Rough. That gave us traction to get to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Tokyo in 1999.

Kenichi Zenimura brought baseball to Japanese Americans incarcerated at Gila River, Ariz., during World War II • Courtesy of NBRP

EH: What can you tell us about Japanese baseball in the Pacific Northwest?

KYN: Wherever we go with our exhibit, we like to focus on the local story. In Seattle we got to showcase the image of the Seattle Asahi, featuring Frank Fukuda and Katsuji Nakamura. I think of Frank Fukuda who founded this amazing immigrant team and took them to Japan as early as 1914, then went back in 1918 and 1921 to be ambassadors for our country of American baseball.

When Mr. Nakamura was asked why they made this early tour to Japan, he responded that he wanted to learn about the Japanese economy and Japanese life, but also their Yamato-damashii — their Samurai — heritage. For them, understanding their roots in Japan was important because they felt very strongly Japanese American. They loved their heritage, their culture, their customs, the food, the art, the music, but also baseball.

EH: In July, Seattle hosted the Major League Baseball (MLB) All Star Game at T-Mobile Park. In addition to all the on-field festivities, there was also a Play Ball exhibition across the street which included wonderful exhibits showcasing the histories of Black, Latino, women’s baseball, and, for the first time, Japanese baseball. How did all that come about?

KYN: For 29 years, since our Nisei Baseball Research Project nonprofit was started, we’ve been crusading to get MLB and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum to include our history and our pioneers, much like they’ve done with the Black leagues, Latinos in baseball, and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

Billy Bean, Senior Vice President of MLB’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion initiative and Special Assistant to Commissioner Rob Manfred, saw our exhibit at Dodger Stadium and later at the Arizona Heritage Center, and invited us to be part of the “Play Ball Park” with the Seattle Mariners. I can’t tell you how elated we were to be included, finally. I call it the fourth wheel of the baseball history bus.

EH: What’s the best way for people to learn more and get involved?

KYN: We have our website at https://niseibaseball.com/ and our Facebook page Nisei Baseball Research Project. They can also check out our documentary called Diamonds in the Rough. I was very honored to have Noriyuki “Pat” Morita help me write this documentary, and he served as our on-camera host and narrator. 

We also have a film we produced called American Pastime that honors the veterans of the 442nd, and the Go for Broke organization. If readers want to check out the documentary, film, or websites, we’d certainly be honored if they would do so. 

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